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Mahmud Jega: Of party, parliament and president

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Mahmud Jega: Of party, parliament and president

By Mahmud Jega

When I passed by a television set last Thursday and saw a rofo-rofo fight in progress I at first thought it was a brawl at a motor park, except for the ornate surroundings of the boxing ring. I overheard a man grumbling that day that Nigerians did not provide rich wardrobe allowances to the MPs in these lean times only for them to be tearing the clothes in public.

That the simmering crisis within the ranks of the ruling APC should explode into a brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives shocked Nigerians who only a few weeks ago voted the party into power on the promise of change.

Change seems to have come alright but it is hardly the one that anyone envisaged. While there have been many brawls on the floor of Nigerian parliaments since the First Republic, these were usually between members of different political parties. APC therefore scored a first when ruling party MPs created chaos on the House floor against the Speaker, a fellow party member.

There have been many twists and turns in the APC crisis but the bottom line is this: what should be the exact nature of the relationship between a ruling party, MPs elected on its platform as well as the President of the Federal Republic also elected on its platform, in a presidential system of government? If Nigeria were still operating a British-style parliamentary system things might have been clearer because party whips would whip backbenchers into line. The American-style presidential system is something else and APC, being a relatively new party, is yet to find its bearing in this three-way relationship.

At issue last Thursday was what “loyalist” party members said was the refusal by Speaker Yakubu Dogara to read a letter sent to him by APC’s national chairman Chief John Odigie-Oyegun. The chairman’s letter contained the names of people that he said should be appointed as House principal officers. The protesting MPs said the chairman’s letter was a directive to the Speaker and he should simply read it. APC went so far as to publish the letter as a newspaper advert, complete with receiving stamps to show that both Saraki and Dogara’s offices received it. The problem of course was that all four names contained in Oyegun’s letter belonged to the faction of MPs that was defeated in the election for Speaker and Deputy Speaker by the APC faction loyal to Dogara.

Since the session was disrupted, we cannot know for sure what Dogara intended to do with Oyegun’s letter. There was however an indicator later in the day when the Senate sat. Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki, who had received a similar letter from Oyegun, ignored it and instead announced other names as Senate principal officers. For that matter, all four names that he mentioned belong to his faction of APC senators that, with the help of PDP senators, elected Saraki as Senate President three weeks ago with a PDP Deputy President to match.

Okay, Speaker Dogara has not yet spoken but Senate President Saraki spoke and since the issues are similar, we can assume that he spoke for both of them. Saraki also published a letter that he sent to Oyegun in reply to the chairman’s letter. He said Oyegun’s letter arrived after APC sub-regional caucuses had met and nominated senators to fill the leadership positions. Therefore, he said, his hands were tied and he could not act on Oyegun’s letter, much as he wanted to.

There are at least two ways to look at this matter. An observer who is divorced from the scene might say well, Saraki and Dogara, you ought to make compromises. Since the party was forced to accept the reality of your emergence as Senate President and House Speaker, the least you can do is to accept the party nominees for the other principal posts. Quite alright, the two of you must have bargained away the posts among your supporters and if you now tell them to give up their own aspirations in order to have peace in the party, they will say you are saying so because you have fulfilled your own aspiration. Yet that was what Aminu Waziri Tambuwal did in 2011. He somehow convinced his faction’s nominee to step down and allow Mulikat Akande to become House Leader. He is in Sokoto now; you can go and ask him how he did it.

That is one way to look at it. Another, equally potent angle is to stick to parliamentary rules and traditions. Is it normal for a party chairman to write such a letter to an Assembly presiding officer, direct him to act in a certain way and order him to read the letter on the House floor? I cannot remember any occasion since the Second Republic when such a thing happened. The nearest occasion to that I remember was in 1981, at the onset of the PRP crisis. Malam Aminu Kano wrote a letter to Speaker Edwin Ume-Ezeoke expelling some PRP MPs from the party for supporting PRP governors’ defiance of an order not to attend the Nine Progressive Governors’ meeting. I think the Speaker read Malam Aminu’s letter on the House floor.

Since 1979, what we have had was party caucuses meeting with the hidden hand of their party to select their National Assembly leaders. The choices are then communicated to the presiding officer who announces it. In 1979 for example, Dr. Olusola Saraki was chosen by the NPN caucus as its leader in the Senate and Senator Jonathan Odebiyi, who was chosen by his caucus as UPN leader, moved that Saraki be made Senate Leader and not just NPN Leader. NPP, GNPP and PRP caucuses also chose their leaders in both chambers, with their parties’ hidden hands.

The belief was that Saraki [father of the current Senate President] was anointed by party leaders to lead NPN senators as compensation since he contested against Shagari for the party’s presidential ticket. If it were so, NPN chairman Chief Augustus Adisa Akinloye never wrote a letter and asked Senate President Joseph Wayas to read it on the floor. PDP also never did that on any occasion between 1999 and 2011, nor did SDP do such a thing in 1992 when two of its members, Iyorchia Ayu and Chuba Okadigbo contested for Senate President, which Ayu won. When Ayu was replaced months later by Senator Ameh Ebute, I was sitting in the press gallery and I did not hear any letter from SDP chairman Chief Tony Anenih being read on the Senate floor.

APC leaders are asserting that the party is supreme and that legislators elected on its platform must accept its decisions on all issues. The issue of party supremacy has been debated in Nigeria since the Second Republic and a conclusion was never reached. This is partly because, even in the military, the Supreme Commander must consider matters very carefully before he issues any orders. In a family too, the father may see himself as supreme but if he issues orders anyhow, the wife or the kids could rebel at some stage.

If you ask me, a political party in Nigeria should exercise its supremacy first and foremost by providing coherent ideological and general policy direction. It can go beyond that and settle matters such as zoning of offices. Zoning is best done before the election when no one knows who will be in contention. You do not wait until MPs are elected, aspirants for leadership positions have emerged and the caucus is already divided between the aspirants before the party wades in on one side. If I were Saraki or Dogara, truly I will see Oyegun’s letter not as a well considered party decision but the whims of one ambitious party chieftain.

The final question is, will the party exert its supremacy over the President and state governors in the same way that it is seeking to do to the National Assembly? If so, we expect to see a letter from Oyegun to President Muhammadu Buhari giving him the names approved by the party for him to appoint as SGF, Chief of Staff, ministers and ambassadors.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Mahmud Jega/Daily Trust

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